The story of Afro-Iraqis: From medieval slave revolts to climate apartheid

Analysis-Afro Iraqis-Climate change
7 min read
25 February, 2022

In the year 869 CE, thousands of East African slaves of the Abbassid Empire revolted against their wealthy landowners in what is today the city of Basra in Iraq, sparking a rebellion that raged on for fourteen years.

Despite the centuries and distance that separates it, the Zanj Rebellion continues to be included in a transnational history of African slavery, along with the Haitian Revolution and Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad. Today’s Afro-Iraqis, descendants of the Zanj rebels, still feel a strong sense of solidarity with the descendants of other enslaved populations. 

In fact, this Iraqi community has forged an identity that transcends time and space. Martin Luther King, Barack Obama, and George Floyd serve as an inspiration to their own civil rights movement in post-Saddam Iraq.

This Black History Month offers an opportunity to spotlight Afro-Iraqis, examining their past and present, and future. As Iraq bears the brunt of climate change, this community’s fate remains precarious, as a de-facto climate apartheid threatens their livehood and Iraq becomes one of the hottest places on earth.

"Today's Afro-Iraqis, descendants of the Zanj rebels, still feel a strong sense of solidarity with the descendants of other enslaved populations"

The Zanj Rebellion

The name given to this rebellion comes from the Arabic word the “Zanj,” meaning “black.” The etymology of the island of Zanzibar comes from this term and “barr,” meaning “land” or “coast” in Arabic. “Zanj” has emerged as a collective term to refer to black slaves exported from this island and east Africa in general, and has has since become a pejorative word.

Slaves destined to Iraq most likely originated from Kenya, Sudan and Ethiopia, and continue to practice collective dance rituals unique to their place of origin in order to preserve and celebrate their identities. While the geographic origins of Iraq's black community differ, the common stories of abduction and enslavement by Arab slave traders, their journey from Africa to Iraq, and their rebellion, serve as common point in their collective memory today.

Slaves embarked at the port city of Basra in today’s Iraq for the grueling task of draining the salt marshes and cultivating sugarcane. In 869 CE, slave gangs revolted, inspired by the charismatic Ali ibn Muḥammad, who preached the Kharijite doctrine of Islam that anyone, even a black slave, could be chosen as caliph.

As the cause gained momentum, black soldiers in the military contingents of the Abbasid army defected to join the movement, declaring their own statelet with a capital, al-Mukhtara, or “the Chosen.” It spread to southwestern Iran and had its own seaport on the Gulf. It endured for 15 years, before the caliph’s army counterattacked, seizing al-Mukhtara in 883.

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For historian Kent Krause, the significance of the Zanj rebellion extends far beyond the region, and legacy of this revolt inspired other African slave uprisings, such as the Haitian Revolution and the Male Revolt in Brazil. “A precursor to the slave rebellions in Latin America and the Caribbean centuries later, the Zanj rebellion demonstrated the powerful potential of a captive population that rises up in solidarity,” he said

Afro-Iraqis in post-Saddam Iraq

The official numbers of the Afro-Iraqi community do not exist, and they range from 400,000 to approximately two million, primarily located in the Basra province. As Iraqi civil society evolved after the 2003 invasion, Jalal Diab Thijeel founded the Free Iraqi Movement in 2007 to represent the Afro-Iraqi community, seeking to address the humiliation and degradation this community has endured for centuries.

It advocates civil rights, government recognition of this community and anti-discrimination laws. When it was founded, the community had no representation in government, and not a single Afro-Iraqi served as a cabinet-level minister, member of parliament, or even in a municipal council. They continue to lobby for state recognition as a minority, which would grant them the same benefits as Iraqi Christians, including reserved seats in parliament.

They also sought to amend Iraq’s constitution to ban endemic discrimination against the black community and improve their employment opportunities. Afro-Iraqis continue to be routinely denied a chance to either serve or advance in the army, police, or bureaucracy. Most are constrained to lower income jobs, working as cleaners or musicians and dancers.

Finally, the Free Iraqi Movement advocates for social awareness, asking for airtime on national media to communicate their grievances as well as reforming the school curricula to acknowledge their history in an unbiased fashion. Thijeel taught his own courses on Afro-Iraqi history, including the Zanj rebellion, along with fostering a local hip-hop scene.

Amir Al-Azraki, Assistant Professor of Culture and Language Studies at Renison University and an expert on the Afro-Iraqi community, told The New Arab, “Unfortunately, very few people of the Afro-Iraqi community know about or are aware of the Zanj rebellion, perhaps due to a high rate of illiteracy.” That dearth of knowledge made Thijeel’s work even more valuable for this community.  

Across the Middle East and North Africa, racism is rampant both institutionally and socially, exemplified by the experiences of black communities in Palestine, Egypt, Turkey, Iran and beyond.

"Because these communities in the region remain marginalised and largely invisible, Afro-Iraqis have looked beyond the region for inspiration and solidarity, finding an affinity with African-Americans"

Still, according to Al-Azraki, “There isn’t an organised communication, coordination or solidarity network in the region. A few Afro-Iraqis have been involved in ritual performances with Afro-Iranians in Iran, but this is done on an individual basis.”

Because these communities in the region remain marginalised and largely invisible, Afro-Iraqis have looked beyond the region for inspiration and solidarity, finding an affinity with African-Americans.

The 2008 election of Barack Obama was a seminal moment for this community, as someone of Kenyan heritage assumed leadership of the world’s superpower, a point that certainly must have inspired Iraqis originally from Kenya. Thijeel hung a photo of the U.S. President in his classroom along with Martin Luther King’s.

On April 26, 2013, Thijeel was assassinated, most likely by political factions opposed to his attempt to run for office, tragically mirroring the fate of his inspiration, Dr. King. The community found renewed inspiration from Black Lives Matter, and the May 2020 death of George Floyd, provided a rallying call for Iraqi-Africans to protest their own oppression and demand dignity.

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The future

The future of the Afro-Iraqi community remains even more precarious given one of the biggest existential threats facing Iraq: climate change. 

The area around Basra has already proven to be particularly vulnerable to extreme weather. During the 2019 summer heatwave, for example, cities like Basra, particularly the inland district of Zubayr where most Afro-Iraqis live, were affected by some of the highest temperatures in recorded history.

In Basra sea-level rise could inundate households and has already led to saltwater intrusion in Basra’s canals and streams, 300 kilometres upward through Shatt al-Arab waterway, killing crops, livestock, and fish. While many of Basra’s population suffer from poverty, as an even more marginalised population, the Afro-Iraqi community faces exacerbated hardship from these environmental changes.

The recently deceased Archbishop Desmond Tutu coined climate change apartheid, saying, “climate apartheid emerges from complex exchanges between racism and environmental exploitation.”

Iraq serves as a template of climate apartheid, where only the wealthy could afford food, water, and electricity to run an air conditioner, particularly in Basra.

 "In the future, climate apartheid will emerge across the world as people living live in the same area experience extreme weather differently based on race, ethnicity, and class"

In 2016, journalist Richard Hall wrote, “in the future, only the rich will be able to escape the unbearable heat from climate change. In Iraq, it’s already happening.”

Iraq is far from the only country witnessing an emerging climate apartheid based on intersections of marginalisation. A comparison between the Afro-Iraqi and, for instance, Afro-Colombian community once again highlights the transnational connections of descendants of slave populations.

Just as the Afro-Iraqi leader Thijeel was assassinated, so too paramilitaries were most likely behind the June 2019 death of Maria Hurtado, an Afro-Colombian leader. Both live in areas vulnerable to rise in sea-levels, and are subjected to both overt state violence and repression and systematic disenfranchisement and marginalisation. 

Black History month serves as a time to reflect on the historical trajectories and injustices that led to the marginalisation of communities from Iraq to the United States to Colombia. In the future, climate apartheid will emerge across the world as people living live in the same area experience extreme weather differently based on race, ethnicity, and class.

Amidst these dire circumstances, the fate of the Afro-Iraqi community remains uncertain.

Ibrahim Al-Marashi is an associate professor of history at California State University San Marcos. He is co-author of Iraq's Armed Forces: An Analytical History and The Modern History of Iraq.

Follow him on Twitter: @ialmarashi